A controversial bill passed by a House Committee in Rhode Island would create a state wide surveillance apparatus that would automatically ticket motorists and split half the money with the corporation that installed the cameras.
Passed by a 7-2 vote on Tuesday by the House Corporations Committee, the bill calls for the authorization of a network of optical license plate readers that would check plate numbers against a national police database.
The readers would be deployed along major highways in the state and ticket uninsured drivers in real time. Meanwhile, the company responsible for installing and maintaining the devices would collect 50 percent of the “profits.”
In other words, lawmakers in Rhode Island are perfectly content with being political hacks while filling state coffers and enriching their large corporate donors.
Various forms of the bill have been voted down several times over the past couple of years due to privacy and civil liberties issues. The most recent version has yet to be embraced by a Senate sponsor.
According to Rep. Robert Jacquard (D-North Kingstown), the bill’s primary sponsor in the House, changes have been made to earlier versions of the legislation in order to address surveillance concerns and fears the cameras may be abused.
The readers utilize optical character recognition on images in order to read vehicle registration plates. They can check if a vehicle is registered, licensed, insured and can even be used for electronic toll collection by highways agencies.
The changes to the bill referenced by Jacquard include a prohibition against using the cameras to collect tolls. The legislation also stipulates that tickets generated by the system remain under $120.
Additionally, the bill prohibits the readers from being attached to moving objects like police vehicles and airplanes.
Jacquard said the system’s primary focus is uninsured motorists from out of state but that in-state residents will also be targeted.
“We do have a system in place now that verifies whether or not Rhode Islanders are complying with the [mandatory] insurance statute,” Jacquard said. “But it doesn’t know whether you are operating on the road or not.”
The bill is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, the Division of Motor Vehicles and surprisingly, Insurance companies, who say it would complicate compliance with a recent law passed that also targets uninsured motorists.
Optical license plate readers can be used to store images that may include photographs of drivers while using infrared lighting to allow cameras to take pictures at any time of day.
It is unclear how long images would be stored in the new Rhode Island system after they are captured or who may be allowed to access them. The bill would bring in an estimated $15 million a year for the state.
According to a 2012 report by the Police Executive Research Forum, approximately 71 percent of all U.S. police departments use some type of license plate readers.
A federal database to combine all license plate monitoring systems has been proposed by the Department of Homeland Security. That proposal was scrapped in 2014 however, following outcry by privacy advocates and civil libertarians.